Servant

3 out of 5

Created by: Tony Basgallop

Admit it: we all fell for the creepy trailor and the “produced by M. Night Shyamalan” tag.  The premise certainly didn’t help to dissuade the whole mystery box vibe the show was undeniably going for: Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, respectively) hire on a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to take care of their “child,” Jericho – a reborn doll – and after significantly weirding up proceedings with Sean’s job of preparing odd culinary dishes from home for high end clients, Dorothy’s always cheery demeanor, and Leanne’s penchant for late night, vociferous prayer, Servant pulls out the twist we were waiting for: Sean approaches the crib and finds that the Jericho doll has seemingly become a real child.

Our lead couple lost their son, and now, as part of Dorothy’s recovery, they are caring for this doll.  But it’s been going on for too long – their marriage is rocky, but Sean (and Dorothy’s brother, Julian, played by Rupert Grint) hope to find a way to ween Dorothy off of the doll without sending her back into the state she was in after the real Jericho’s death.  A big part of the problem is that Dorothy never “breaks” the act with the doll: she treats it as real, and this habit is automatically picked up by Leanne, to whom Sean also takes a dislike as she doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the situation.

This is already a good, stewing cauldron of dramatic potential, and our three main actors, very often the only characters with whom we interact, pull it off very well, finding balance within all three so that they’re never wholly one likable or hateable thing.  The tone Shyamalan sets in his first episode – slow, shadowed, voyeuristic – is carried over by the other talented directors who follow.  But then there’s all the other stuff.  Obviously there’s the curiosity of the suddenly appearing real child, which leads into discoveries regarding Leanne’s character.  On top of that, the show plays very coy with the details regarding Jericho’s death, and then there’s the vague body horror elements that affect Sean: he loses his ability to taste things; he seems to keep getting massive splinters from the house.  And this Lost-y sense of delaying explanations becomes rather tired over ten episodes, even with a short, 30ish minute runtime.  Episodes just seem paced slow and creepily so we can accept only really learning some piecemeal detail instead of advancing anything; when we finally get to some explanations – episode 9 or 10 – it’s exceptionally acted, but again raises the question of why it’s presented in the way it is, as a series of back-and-forth flashbacks, past and present, when a linear sequence may have been equally, if not more, affecting.

Servant is a well-produced, well-acted, intriguingly moody series, but by going whole hog with its engimas-within-enigmas construction, it starts to feel a bit tired, recycling oddities for the sake of it, when the show would likely be interesting even without a lot of those extras.